The Invisible Consumer



“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man



The visible consumer
This post is born of a long conversation over excellent coffee with the clever and lovely Wiemer Snijders. It occurred to us that  - at least in how marketing- and adland regard the world – there are two types of consumers.  There is the visible and the invisible. 

The visible consumer is easy to find. Visible and vocal, they are the people lining up waiting for the new Apple Store to open. Waiting overnight to be the first to buy the latest iteration of Call of Duty. Or Harry Potter. Sporting Harley Davidson tattoos, and signing up as fans on facebook. The visible consumer is well, visible. They don't require that much effort to find and spot.

And for those of us in marketing and adland this visible consumer can be an understandable source of pride, as well as conviction that what we do and make really does matter a very great and really makes a big difference to people.

Lower Back Harley Tattoo


But uncritically extrapolating from the visible consumer or placing a disproportionate emphasis on the visible consumer warps our understanding. And blinds us from seeing and understanding the consumers who really matter. 


Looking in the wrong direction
Only to look at the hundreds of disciples lining up waiting for the new Apple Store to open risks forgetting that Apple must shift unit sales in the millions, not thousands. It is to forget that most people who might be in the market for something from Apple haven’t turned up. It is to forget that most people don’t treat the opening of a shop as something akin to a religious ceremony. And to forget that most people really don’t want to stand in line. 

Only noticing the guy with a Harley Davidson tattoo can lead us to  conclude that everybody who owns one exhibits cult-like devotion. We can forget that the vast majority of owners are perfectly normal, law-abiding and distinctly conventional people. For whom owning a Harley Davidson does not define their entire lives. And for whom getting a tattoo – any tattoo – is something they have absolutely no interest in.

We can marvel at all those hundreds of thousands of fans a brand has acquired on facebook. But not to look at this in context can lead us to overlook the fact that even the largest fan community on facebook represents but a tiny fraction (just work out the percentages) of a brand’s customer base. Let alone the broader population in the market for that category. It overlooks the fact that that most people don’t consider themselves fans of any brand, and are simply happy to buy them on a regular – albeit occasional – basis.


The visible consumer is not typical
But the visible and vocal consumer is unlikely to be representative of our real customer base. They may be passionate, interested, loyal, knowledgable and vocal but they are in truth unlike the majority of our customers. And just to notice the visible consumer and not the invisible consumer can lead to us to the dangerous assumption that brands matter a great deal to most people.

The visible consumer is not typical because most of a brand’s customers purchase it infrequently, the majority of a brand’s customer base is composed of light buyers, and most of a brand’s sales revenue comes from these light buyers. The vast majority of any brand's user base is not devoted or passionate.

Furthermore, the visible consumer is not typical because most of your customers  – unlike the devoted and passionate – know very little about our brand. The majority of knowledge about a brand is concentrated amongst a very small percentage of your customer base.

The visible consumer is not typical because most people aren’t buying your brand very often. They aren’t passionately devoted to it. They don’t know very much about it. And they’re aren’t thinking very much about it. 

There is a predictable appeal against this argument. Fans are influential. Fans act as a media channel. Fans provide us with content and collaboration. 

All this they can undoubtedly do.

But their atypicality means that the visible consumer is not the key to understanding our customer base. Or indeed where our future sales revenue will come from. 


(Re)discovering the invisible consumer
By all means let’s identify and understand those smaller groups whose enthusiasm and visibility we can harness. And let’s work out ways in which we can efficiently exploit it.

But our task as marketers and communicators is to influence the preferences and behaviours of large populations. And that means we must recognize, understand and value the invisible consumer. We cannot get lazy and merely notice that which is easily noticeable. We must love the invisible consumer as much as the visible.

The behaviours of the invisible consumer are certainly less public, less theatrical and less vocal than those of the visible consumer. And so their very ordinary habits might not make the egos of those in marketing- and adland swell with pride. 

But the fact of the matter is that measure of our success is not whether we succeed in creating remarkable consumers. The measure of our success is whether we succeed in creating a remarkable brand in the habits and minds of very ordinary people.



  1. Juliana

    dear martin,
    i´ve been reading – and loving – your blog for a while. for the brilliant data, information, thoughts, opinions.
    but this post is special. i totally identify myself with the invisible consumer… and i loved the idea of invisible people. most of people i work with (i work in a ad agency) are so excited about EVERYTHING that sometimes i feel the voice of boredom ;o))) (not anymore)

  2. LoveStats

    There are so many invisible people. People who never answer surveys, who never type on social media, who never answer the phone, who never answer the door. People who don’t speak up when asked, who are silent when we truly want their opinion. The market research world is built on the kindness of extraverts and those strong-minded enough to share their opinions. If only we could convince the quiet ones to speak up too.

  3. Martin Weigel

    Hey Juliana,
    Your kind words have made all the work worthwhile. Thank you very much.
    I agree with you… we (in ad agencies) are excitable people. That’s why we’re fun to work with. But we need to get excited about the right things. Not just the easy things!

  4. Martin Weigel

    Great point on research. Though I might go further… I’m less interested in understanding people’s opinions (we’re never good at predicting or accounting for what we do) and more interested in observing what people actually do…

  5. christopher

    I work for a broadcast & digital media owner and over the last 12 months we’ve been briefed on a number of campaigns across a range of clients (beers, chocolate bars, even financial services) the success of which will be measured by the number of Facebook ‘likes’ the campaign will deliver.. Why do you think so many brands are still chasing likes from these visible consumers as a wholly grail of success? – very tempted to simply direct them to this article in future

  6. A Facebook User

    This is a great point to raise. I’m new to the planning world and coming out of academia, I am amazed at how many simple methodological errors get made every day in adland, let alone in what often passes for market “research”.
    What you are describing is pretty much the same as the problem of selecting cases on you dependant variable. Basically only looking at the ‘hits’ and not the ‘misses’. I see this as a significant obstacle to getting to any sort of even testable hypotheses.
    While its in a different discipline, Designing for Social Inquiry, by King, Keohane and Verba pretty much throws down the gauntlet on this topic. Well worth the read. While there is a robust debate on the ideas put forward the section on judging causal inference is steller.

  7. Martin Weigel

    Hello Facebook User,
    That’s not the first time I’ve heard the criticism from academia. Though in fairness, adland doesn’t have the monopoly on dubious methodologies!
    Thank you for the reading recommendation… hadn’t come across that before, so thanks very much!

  8. Martin Weigel

    Hey Christopher,
    Ah yes. Pretending that recruiting facebook fans is a real objective. Sigh.
    I think the logic at work here goes: Fans buy more. Therefore all we need to do is recruit more fans. As if the act of becoming a fan MADE people buy more.
    This forgets two things.
    That correlation is not causality. Which one would have thought is statistics 101.
    And while fans do buy proportionately more than non-fans, there just aren’t very many of them at all.
    It’s a case of the marketing discipline becoming detached from the mechanics of revenue generation – made worse by the fact that while they know a lot about social technology, facebook don’t know very much about about how brands are built and sustained.
    A perfect storm of silliness.
    Keep the faith though!

  9. Seán

    Interesting read and great points.
    But what you fail to mention is that success is (roughly) “the achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted.”
    To plan we must have a clear goal of the target.
    And until I can get a clear goal of the invisible consumer I’ll have to stick with targetting the visible.
    That religious or devoted fan was once a very ordinary person …

  10. Martin Weigel

    Hi Sean,
    Absolutely agree with your point about the nature of success.
    Look at the distribution of purchase frequency for any brand.
    You’ll quickly see that if we take the easy route and target those noisy, visible, loyal, heavy buyers – the visible – we’ll ignore:
    a) where most of our current revenue is coming from
    b) where future revenue will come from.
    The truth of the matter is that those invisible consumers are only invisible if we choose not to see them, for they are in fact, everywhere.
    As Ralph Ellison wrote – “I am invisible… simply because people refuse to see me.”

  11. Willem

    Great post, thanks. I’d add the main pitfall of thinking of the masses of invisible consumers is to go into the familiar lowest common denominator, and/or for a brand to try and be everything for everyone.
    In a similar vein, I liked this post about engaging with extreme consumers as a way to get new ideas / insights for larger audiences, you may have seen it already:

  12. Martin

    Glad you liked.
    You make a good point about being “everything for everyone”.
    Though I might refine it and suggest that the real task is to be SOMETHING for everyone in the category.
    Thanks for visiting and reading!